Israel Peace Deal Shakes Sudan’s Fragile Transition

Israel Peace Deal Shakes Sudan’s Fragile Transition

KAMPALA, Uganda—A U.S.-brokered peace deal with Israel has deepened rifts in Sudan’s fragile transitional government, divisions that are set to delay the implementation of central elements of the agreement and could destabilize a nation still recovering from decades of internal conflict.

President Trump earlier this month said Sudan, a country that once hosted Osama bin Laden, had become the latest nation to normalize its relationship with Israel in a major realignment of powers in the Middle East and northern Africa.

In return, the U.S. will remove Sudan from a list of states it considers sponsors of terrorism. That designation had blocked the country’s collapsing economy from receiving much-needed aid, including debt relief and tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance. Sudan and Israel have agreed to reopen respective embassies in Tel Aviv and Khartoum.

For the Trump administration, the deal was a major foreign-policy win ahead of next week’s presidential election.

But in Sudan’s capital, the government dispatched soldiers to quell anti-Israel street protests that erupted after the deal was announced by the White House.

Three political parties that supported the ouster of longtime strongman Omar al-Bashir last year have threatened to withdraw from the coalition backing the transitional government, which is made up of the military, civil-society groups and political parties. The parties say they were excluded from the negotiations with Israeli and U.S. officials, which were led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s military council and the de facto head of state.

“Normalization opens risks to our fragile transitional situation,” said Sadiq al-Mahdi, a former prime minister who heads the National Umma Party, one of Sudan’s largest political parties and a participant in the coalition supporting the transitional government. “This decision violates Sudan’s constitution and can easily result in the collapse of this government.”

Many Sudanese, who have grown up in a country in which hostility to Israel and support for Palestinian statehood has featured prominently in state propaganda, are opposed to normalizing ties, said Eric Reeves, a fellow with the Nairobi-based Rift Valley Institute who has studied Sudan’s politics since the 1990s. A recent poll, conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, a Doha-based think tank close to the Qatari government, found that just 13% of Sudanese supported establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

“Not only has normalization created gratuitous political tensions in the country, but it has also strengthened the hand of al-Burhan and the military,” Mr. Reeves said.

Some younger, urban Sudanese, such as Mohamed Ali, a 30-year-old banker in Khartoum, say they feel less attached to the anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian cause of their fathers. “This pact shall pave the way for economic growth, with Sudan getting out of the isolation and attracting new investments,” he said.

President Trump brokered the peace deal that was struck between Sudan and Israel on Oct. 23.



Photo:

alex edelman/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

On Monday, Gen. Burhan appeared on state television to defend the agreement, which he said would help heal Sudan’s economy. The country is saddled with some $60 billion in debt, about twice its annual economic output. “We benefit more than any other party,” he said.

Gen. Burhan also said that the government would submit the agreement for approval by a yet-to-be established legislative council. Key parts of the agreement, such as the reopening of embassies, will be delayed until then, the foreign ministry said.

According to last year’s transition deal between the military and civilian groups, the council is supposed to act as an interim parliament until elections due in 2022. But its creation depends on the government first making peace with two rebel groups that have so far refused to be part of the accord with Israel, insisting that it doesn’t address the rights of victims of the civil wars during Mr. Bashir’s regime.

The Sudanese Professionals Association, which spearheaded the anti-Bashir protests that helped topple Mr. Bashir last year and would be one of the biggest blocs in the council, hasn’t commented on the deal with Israel. But the group last week restarted demonstrations against the transitional government, including its decision to remove subsidies for fuel and wheat.

As part of the peace deal, the U.S., Israel and the United Arab Emirates pledged to send $50 million worth of wheat to Sudan as humanitarian aid. Israel also promised to share agricultural technology to boost harvests in Sudan’s desert climate.

Nearly a quarter of Sudan’s 82 million people don’t have enough to eat, but traders have struggled to sell their wares as sky-high inflation, which topped 200% in September, puts them out of reach for regular Sudanese.

Many Sudanese say they feel an important foreign-policy decision has been dictated by outsiders.

“This now looks like election propaganda for the Americans,” said Ibrahim Hassan, a grain trader in El-Obeid, a market town in Sudan’s agricultural heartland, standing next to a 3-meter-high pile of unsold bags of beans.

Mr. Hassan said that many ordinary Sudanese never benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance previously provided by the U.A.E. “I don’t think it will help our country,” he said.

—Naba Mohiedeen in El-Obeid, Sudan, contributed to this article.

Write to Nicholas Bariyo at nicholas.bariyo@wsj.com

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